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Libraries & Rare Book Dealers’ Catalogues

April 24, 2012.

Over the weekend a group of librarians, academics, and book dealers had a great twitter conversation about rare book dealer descriptions and their use in library cataloguing.

It started with Mike Widener’s post at the Yale Law Library Blog about his love of dealer catalogues and his practice of including their content in library catalogue entries. Mike listed the rules he follows and wrote that “The description adds value to our catalog. It records a wealth of information about the book that would be impossible to include in the online catalog record”.

This caught the attention of Jeremy Dibbell, who included it in his weekly Links & Reviews post, as well as John Overholt, and Sarah Werner, who began a twitter conversation hoping to get more input from other librarians and book dealers (you can read the entire thread, with Sarah’s comments, on Storify). I noticed the conversation about half-way through, and was about to chime in when Sarah kindly asked me and fellow dealer Brooke Palmieri (who recently wrote on the subject of bookdealer’s catalogues) for our input.

My reaction was very positive. My colleagues and I put a huge amount of work into our cataloguing, including original research and very careful consideration of how we present books, manuscripts, and other objects. They aren’t just things to be sold, they carry historical and cultural meanings of which we’re the temporary caretakers. Our goal is to do these justice, and it’s nice to know that our institutional colleagues appreciate it when we do a good job, and that they find our work useful in the larger context of academic librarianship.

Additionally, as dealers we often use library catalogues to do research, and anything that could enhance the experience appeals to us. Dealer descriptions often include provenance and bibliographical information that might be difficult to include otherwise, and they can provide excellent search terms for those browsing a catalogue.  I also love the idea of searching library databases and being able to see what other dealers have said about a book over the course of time. In the absence of a comprehensive database of dealer catalogues (which will probably not happen in the near future!) this is the best idea I’ve heard for making available this type of information.

One of the main points at issue during the discussion was that of credit. We all agreed that it’s essential to credit the dealer in the same way that you would cite a source in an academic article. Mike Widener also directly asks the dealer for permission before posting, and while this is definitely the polite (and legal!) way to proceed, my colleagues and I agree that it’s less important than giving credit (as long as there is no unique content in the cited catalogue entry, which it was pointed out, would require more careful consultation with the dealer).

Much of the discussion also hinged around the capability of various library systems to accommodate this type of information, and the procedures for cataloguing at different institutions. I hope that despite the differences between systems and philosophies, more institutions will follow Widener’s lead and find ways to incorporate dealer descriptions in their online catalogues.  As well as being practical, it’s a wonderful way to foster closer ties between institutions and dealers.  If any readers are librarians or rare book dealers with an opinion to contribute, please do chime in, either her, at the Storify feed, or or at the blogs of the various contributors.

Laura joined Peter Harrington in 2009 after completing a master's degree in book history at the University of London. Her special interests are science and medicine, modern literature, and the book culture of the medieval and early modern eras.